This is the shortest in the cycle of Carette family stories, available to read online, with a short introduction by Lynne Tillman, on the Center for Fiction’s website. It’s one of their “model stories”—for good reason.
It’s concise, yet still manages to highlight so many of Gallant’s trademarks: acute observations about relationships, her wit, and her focus on class and status (and how revelations about it are contained in language and religion and buying habits).
In Gallant’s short stories, single word choices matter. Raymond’s wife’s eyelashes could be described in many different ways. Raymond’s mother describes them as “stubby”.
When Raymond introduces his mother to the neighbourhood, he complains that the place “was full of Canadians and [they] stole like raccoons”. (She’s visited eight times previously, but he moves around a lot, as did the Carette sisters when they were young, but Marie would prefer that we not remind her of that.)
Raymond is as eager to identify with the Americans as his mother is to distinguish herself from them. When something is out of order architecturally in Montreal, people say that it’s as bad as it is in Cleveland, a city about as far south of the U.S./Canada border as Montreal is north of it.
He’s also happy to focus on his Canadian childhood when that’s more convenient. “People in Montreal move more often than in any other city in the world. I can show you figures. My father wasn’t a Montrealer, so we always lived in just the one house.”
What figures, I’d like to ask (like a fact-oriented reporter in a White House “press briefing” these days). Gallant isn’t looking at the data either. She inhabits the liminal space, in which Raymond’s father’s New Brunswick relatives left in a huff after the funeral, all too aware that their kin lived his entire adult life and was buried in Montreal, against his wishes. Can anyone say where someone else belongs?
Gallant leaves the question of Louis’ true affinity unanswered but clearly states that Raymond is living in and managing a different motel every time his mother visits. Raymond is always trying to establish a future in the motel industry, but “his motels seemed to die on his hands”. He is a transient presence in an industry built on transience. (Ouch.)
Language can also be used to massage social awkwardness out of a situation (so take note, the whole dying on his hands thing is a deliberate statement). As, for instance, when Marie mentions a dinner that Berthe had with a man who works in the Cleveland office of the business that employs them.
Raymond describes the man as a “widower on the executive level”. Readers understand that the man’s wife has left him, so at best the man’s divorced. But that’s “objectively the same thing”, Raymond notes. (Is it? Does anyone have figures for that?)
Marie tells Raymond’s wife later that he’s a thief too. That he stole his father’s watch. And then he lost it. Raymond’s wife doesn’t offer commentary on whether Raymond stole the watch or not. But it matters to her that Marie understand that the watch was never lost.
She corrects Marie by saying that Raymond “probably sold it to two or three different people”. That’s better than it being lost. Like being a widower is better than being divorced. Like buildings town down in Montreal are never worse than all the buildings torn down in Cleveland.
“He’ll find out what it’s like, alone in the world. Without his mother. Without his aunt. Without his wife. Without his baby.” This is Marie’s judgement upon Raymond. As if it’s a condition unique to Raymond. As if he could avoid all that loss by marrying a woman with longer lashes.
Already I resent the fifth story, daring to bring other characters onto the scene of this collection. But, I know, as soon as I start reading, I’ll be just as intrigued by whomever Gallant introduces next.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fourth story in Across the Bridge. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “Dédé”.